BOOK REVIEW: Francine Prose, Gluttony: The Seven Deadly Sins (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 144 pages (paperback), $9.95.
It may be far less common today than it once was to think of gluttony as an actual crime against heaven, but it is still the one among the seven deadly sins with which we are the most preoccupied.
Francine Prose is the author of Gluttony, the second in a series of books about the seven deadly sins, each by a different author, published by The New York Public Library and Oxford University Press between 2003 and 2006, and all newly available in paperback as of late 2006. Prose finds ample evidence of our obsession with food and eating at her local bookstore: “For every volume offering advice about the contemporary equivalents of the other sins (sexual addiction, anger management, and so forth) there are dozens of books designed to help the hapless or self-loathing glutton (itself a notably unfashionable term) to repent and reform.” Perhaps this should not surprise us. After all, no sooner has modern civilization conquered the scourge of frequent food shortages than, we are told, it is beset by a seemingly equal and opposite problem: an “epidemic” of obesity.
Prose, a novelist with several books to her credit and a contributing editor at Harper’s, has high hopes for the value of an exploration of gluttony. She writes, in her introduction, “For if, as they say, we are what we eat, then how we feel about eating—and eating too much—reveals our deepest beliefs about who we are, what we will become, and about the connections and conflicts between the needs of the body and the hungers of the spirit.”
Alas, although her book certainly has some merit, it does not quite live up to these elevated expectations. But as more and more of us in the developed world begin to resemble TV’s Homer Simpson, it is clear that gluttony is a subject in need of some exploration.
“Unlike the other deadly sins,” Prose writes, “lust and gluttony are allied with behaviors required for the survival of the individual and the species.” If we were to stop eating, we would die, and if everyone were to stop having sex, the species would die out. How did religion work around these inconvenient facts? “The traditional solution to the problems of gluttony and lust has been to suggest that the element of sin enters in only when we allow ourselves to relax and enjoy satisfying the needs of the body. We are allowed to eat and have sex as long as we don’t like it.” (Emphasis in original.) Long before Mencken brought it to our attention, religious authorities were obviously, seriously worried that someone, somewhere, might be having a good time.
On the face of it, the idea that overeating might be a sin is a little hard to, er, swallow. After all, as Prose points out, “The sensible question that recurs in discussions of this particular deadly sin is: Whom exactly does it harm except the glutton himself?” Early theologians, she tells us, had two main reasons to consider gluttony more than just a personal foible. First, “worship of the senses in general and of the sense of taste in particular turns our attention from holy things and becomes a substitute for the worship of God.” Topping the list of the Ten Commandments, let us not forget—far ahead of any rules forbidding such trivialities as murder and theft—is the admonishment to worship no other gods.
The second reason offered by early theologians for considering gluttony a major transgression is what Prose calls the “gateway sin” argument. Gluttony, so the story goes, relaxes our moral guard, paving the way for other sins, just as marijuana use is supposed to pave the way for the use of other, harder drugs. As Prose points out, the “gateway sin” argument actually made more sense “during those centuries when the term ‘gluttony’ signified not only excessive eating (as it is mostly understood today) but also overindulgence in drink.”
While this might have some force to it, Prose suggests that a certain amount of historical contingency was also involved in the classification of gluttony as a deadly sin. “It was gluttony’s misfortune that the codifying of the virtues and vices coincided with the first flowering of the Christian monastic movement and with the simultaneous growth of the idea that the body was to be ignored, denied, despised, and even, if necessary, mortified into submission.”
What was once considered a sin is today more likely to be thought of as an illness of the mind. “However flawed and partial, the idea that overeating is symptomatic of a psychological disorder somehow seems (at least to the secular mind) more logical and comprehensible than the notion that gluttony should constitute a crime against the divine order.” Many of us have become intensely concerned, even paranoid, about the health consequences of what and how much we eat—perhaps, as the author suggests, in a quixotic quest to live forever. For those who are so obsessed with health, it seems to follow quite naturally that others who do not share in this obsession must be playing with something short of a full deck.
Treating gluttony as an illness seems to have the effect of absolving the glutton of blame—which might at first sound like a good thing—but it also seems to absolve him or her of the personal responsibility to do something about the problem. To be sure, berating oneself and wallowing in feelings of guilt and self-pity is not the best prescription for positive change, but then neither is giving away all of one’s power because of a pseudo-medical diagnosis.
Rejecting both options, one could start by acknowledging that one eats for sustenance and for pleasure; that regular overeating is inconsistent with a reasonable concern for one’s health; and that if one has made a habit of overeating, it is because one has repeatedly chosen, of one’s own free will, the immediate pleasures of food over the more distant benefits of moderation. It is possible to acknowledge such a set of facts and to commit oneself to a path of gradual improvement without falling into the trap of self-loathing.
Prose does touch on the issue of free will and its connection with the notion of overeating as a psychological disorder (although too briefly for my taste). She tells us that in medieval times, “no one seems to have doubted that the glutton had a choice concerning when, what, and how much to eat,” and also suggests that it was generally assumed that gluttons simply enjoyed eating. She goes on to comment,
But now that we are more likely to believe in some form of free will, we are paradoxically more willing to believe that eating or not eating is a response to something that happens outside of ourselves, something that was done to us, and that we must struggle to overcome. It’s revealing of our psychotherapeutic view of humanity and of our blame-based culture that we are so persuaded that the quality and quantity of what we ingest is primarily reactive, that our eating habits are less a matter of will and agency than one of displaced response to an injury or harm we have suffered, more often than not in the distant past.
This is an insightful observation, as far as it goes, but Prose unfortunately does not follow it through any further. The paradox she sees, for instance, disappears if we stop thinking of “we” as a monolithic entity. Simply put, those of us who do believe in free will are probably not the same ones who think overeating is primarily caused by outside forces. Again, to stake out some sensible middle ground here, one can believe that overeating might, in some cases, be partly a “displaced response” to some injury and still think that the best solution involves a reaffirmation of will and agency. While I get the sense that Prose would agree with this, she never comes right out and states her own position very clearly.
Prose does sometimes get more explicit, though. She definitely has a bone to pick, so to speak, with the forces of capitalism. After running through some numbers on obesity and its related diseases, she writes, “Given these statistics and considering the fortunes being made from our struggle against gluttony, we can safely assume the cultural emphasis on thinness is based on something more complex and insidious than esthetics or altruism.” A few sentences later, after pointing out that our culture is schizophrenic when it comes to food, celebrating it one minute and warning against its enjoyment the next, she adds pointedly, “And someone is making money from both sides of our ambivalence about, and fascination with, food, diet, gluttony, and starvation.” And again, a few pages later, she writes that “our culture has taken the difficulty of modifying our appetites and of coping with the demands of the body and transformed these private challenges into occasions for the public displays of self-recrimination and guilt, of sin, confession, and repentance—and into opportunities for earning and amassing prodigious sums of money.” (Emphasis added in all.)
This all-too-familiar refrain about the evils of the profit motive ignores the fact that money is merely a tool of exchange and capitalism merely a system that harnesses the power of self-interest for meeting desires, good or bad, moderate or excessive—a system that admittedly does so better than competing systems. Capitalism will not ensure that you will always make the best choice in every instance, though in that it is hardly unique. What it will do is give you more alternatives from which to choose.
Prose does not consider another possible explanation: that welfare statism and not capitalism may be to blame for the recent uptick in scale readings. By “redistributing” the spoils of the semi-free market, our mixed economies may well end up encouraging all sorts of vices by affecting the general character of the population in a negative way. Simply put, welfare statism weakens the link between effort and reward, thereby undermining personal responsibility.
But whether capitalism or welfare statism are partly to blame for the increasing incidence of obesity, a little perspective is in order, for it is difficult to escape the conclusion that in the as-yet-undeveloped parts of the world, people must be looking upon our obesity “epidemic” and thinking, “What a problem to have!”
Although Prose is pretty clear in implicating the profit motive, to her credit she is nonetheless critical of the increasingly common responses to our bulging middles— namely, regulation and litigation. She writes, “In what is perhaps the most disturbing recent development of all, states have now begun to get tough on parents thought to be too lax about their children’s diet. A three-year-old girl named Anamarie Martinez-Regino was taken from her home because her parents were unwilling or unable to persuade or force her to lose weight.” Never let it be said that “nanny state” is just a metaphor.
Prose clearly disapproves of the increasingly frequent calls for governments to intervene to save us from ourselves. She is also critical of the multiplication of legal experts discussing “the feasibility of mounting class action suits—on the model of the recent and ongoing litigation against so-called big tobacco companies—against fast-food restaurants, junk-food manufacturers, and advertisers who target children with ads for salty fried snacks and brightly colored candy masquerading as breakfast cereal.” While Prose acknowledges that the obesity problem (she thankfully eschews calling it an “epidemic”) is undeniable, she writes that the idea of litigating our way to healthier bodies “gives one pause.” She muses, “How far we have come from Saint Augustine and John Cassian and Chrysostom, taking it for granted that the struggle against temptation would be waged in the glutton’s heart and mind—and not, presumably, in the law courts.”
For my money, Prose could have devoted a little less space to piling up example after example of the way medieval theologians thought about gluttony, and instead devoted a little more space to exploring the contemporary scene in more detail. It may be interesting, for instance, to learn that attempts were made to establish a lineage for gluttony by linking it to Adam and Eve’s eating of the apple; that Francis of Assisi used ashes as a spice in order to render his food tasteless; and that Thomas Aquinas’s less-severe stance on gluttony may have had something to do with the fact that he had “what today we might call a weight problem”—but it’s not that interesting.
Worse still are the pages upon pages of descriptions of artists’ and writers’ depictions of gluttons and the punishments that were thought to await them in hell, descriptions that quickly lose their flavor. Too many descriptions, not enough ideas—and very little attempt to analyze and evaluate the different ideas she does touch upon—leave us with only an impressionistic look at this “deadly sin.”
The way Prose ends her short book is no exception. She brings up an interesting idea: that “there’s something about the serious glutton (or in any case, some serious gluttons) that inspires a certain respect for the life force—the appetite—asserting itself in all that prodigious feasting.” Having pointed this out, however, our author, as she is wont to do, pads her observation with descriptions—this time about celebrations of food, about the mythical Land of Cockaigne, and about the treatment of food in Tom Jones.
Again, I would have preferred a little more philosophical exploration of this idea, such as that provided by the lead essay in The Simpsons and Philosophy, which I read a few years back, entitled “Homer and Aristotle.” Raja Halwani, the essay’s author, observes that Homer Simpson, the portly patriarch of his fictional family, fails in every way to live up to Aristotelian virtues. Nevertheless, there is something about Homer that is ethically admirable: his love of life, exemplified by his enjoyment of food and drink. Halwani is quick to add that for this love of life to qualify as truly virtuous, it needs to be guided by practical reason, which in Homer it clearly is not. Still, he writes, “Homer’s love of life stands out as an important quality especially in our age, an age in which political correctness, over-politeness, lack of willingness to judge others, inflated obsession with physical health, and pessimism about what is good and enjoyable about life reign more or less supreme.”
If Prose’s book is sadly deficient in meaty ideas—if she asks us to fill up on bread, as it were—there are still enough morsels of truth to make the meal worth consuming. One particularly good quotation, which Prose takes from the book When Food Is Love by Geneen Roth, comes to mind: “People abuse themselves with food because they don’t know they deserve better.” This is a profound notion, and one that I suspect could be more useful to those struggling with their weight than any attempts to abandon one’s will to a “higher power,” as required by overtly religious groups like Overeaters Anonymous. Food is just one of many sources of joy, and overindulging in the pleasures of the palate quickly gets in the way of other pleasures and satisfactions. We should avoid gluttony, in other words, not in order to deprive ourselves, but because we deserve more out of life.